How did paperback books change reading?
Paperbacks became a cultural artefact which successfully pushed popular common sense, or conventional wisdom, towards an entirely new direction.
Over the last few years, there has been a vigorous debate as to whether ebooks will eventually overtake printed books in popularity. The strongest argument in favour of this prospect is that ebooks consume lesser storage space. The debate will take some more time to settle. It is clear, however, that the ebook has emerged as an acceptable new form of accessing the written text. Now is at least partly a post (paper) print age. That is probably why historians have begun research on why and how the previously dominant form of printed books came to rule the market. It was when the paperback books eventually left the conventional hardback volumes behind in terms of sales and of creating and maturing a far larger readership, principally because it was cheaper to produce and sell. It made sense for more readers to buy them because they were now able to access the same content at a more affordable price. It was to that extent a classic case of democratisation of knowledge employing a commercially viable, and sustainable, technology.
But it was much more. Peter Mandler, the formidable cultural historian of Englishness and a Cambridge University don, has published an insightful paper on what he calls the paperback revolution. He uses the word revolution in a particular sense. The introduction of paperbacks created a larger readership for specialist knowledge. It gradually authorised the social common sense, in Britain and in the US, that the specialist academic, or the professional expert, knows better on subjects of public interest. In so doing, the paperback did not remain a mere format in which printed books were designed or circulated. It became a cultural artefact which successfully pushed popular common sense, or conventional wisdom, towards an entirely new direction.
Mandler is an old master of writing histories of how cultural artefacts mould public taste or equips a public with a particular disposition. He had earlier published on how large country houses, for instance, came to define, over time, the idea of what it means to be British. He has also written on how the idea of possessing history as a cultural attribute eventually became a necessary criterion of Englishness. In this paper, he makes a modest claim. He does not claim, for instance, that the paperback suddenly turned books by professional academics into the highest sold. Then, as now, the advice literature was the real bestseller. The highest selling paperback book in America between 1940 and 1965 was Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care. But he does say that it was also the first time when monographs by academic professionals began to be sold in large numbers. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture, for instance, sold over a million copies. These sorts of books were abstract and conceptual, less directly targeted to the individual looking for survival advice, and not even marketed aggressively. Mandler defines these types of books—based on academic research and writing, and across a wide variety of academic disciplines—as a distinct form of expertise, which reached a popular audience.
The mass market paperback was a global phenomenon. But its impact was earliest and the most intense in the Anglophone world. Mandler studies two acknowledged leaders in the genre: Pelican books in the UK and Mentor books in the USA. Allen Lane, the owner of Penguin, did not have any burning desire to make specialist research available to the public. He was a businessman with an interesting but moderately risky idea, looking to use new technology to trump the conventional snobbery of the book traders and readers. He wished to sell cheaper editions of middlebrow novels and biographies to a provincial and suburban readership. But the Penguin paperbacks became so popular that they were probably the first books to be stocked by chain stores, newsagents, railway bookstalls, and even tobacconists. By 1940, 50% more working-class readers were buying books rather than borrowing from a library. Success pushed Lane towards more philanthropic reflections. He had left school at the age of 16 and now wanted to help those in a similar predicament. He thought of the paperback books as portable evening classes. He married this educational drive with a soft corner for leftwing politics and even published a moving essay in Left Review in 1938 called Books for the millions. The Pelican series was to be the primary vehicle for this special project. The working class was now to take control of their lives by reading good scholarship and the latest research.
The Pelican series, Lane wrote, was designed to allow the working class to access ‘contemporary thought’ and ‘scientific knowledge’ so that they were in a position to control the future ‘in the light of ...knowledge of the past.’ They were now to read ‘Pelican’ books on history, sociology, politics, economics, science, art, and later almost all academic disciplines. Observers were stunned by the titles which sold fifty thousand or more: Tawney’s Religion and the rise of Capitalism or Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life.
The US was a larger market. It had twice the population of Britain, but half the number of bookstores. The first Pelicans appeared in the US in 1946, and for a while ran quite successfully. The books were a mix of recent academic works, reprints of classics, and some fresh commissions. But two practices peculiar to selling books in America eventually caused a rift between Lane and his American partners. First, American newsstand owners would not stock highbrow books unless the publisher also provided them with readymade bestsellers such as pulp fiction. Second, the American market required colourful book covers. Lane considered both these practices beneath his dignity and sold off his stake to his American partners in 1948. Incidentally, neither colour nor illustration became common to Penguin books until the 1960s. In the US, Penguin books were rebranded as Signet books and Pelicans as Mentor books. Their names changed, but Pelicans and Mentors remained committed to the same mission until at least the 1960s. They even shared the same slogan: Good reading for the millions. They did not have any competitors until Anchor books and Vintage books came along in the fifties. Even the latter was higher priced and targeted college or university students. Mentor books remained the undisputed market leader until the 1960s.
This was also a time when rising educational opportunities led to a growing readership for non-fiction. Paperbacks did encourage a new readership. In America, for instance, only 21 per cent of adults reportedly read books and even less bought them. Paperbacks most certainly stimulated the bored suburban housewife to read, since they were now available in the neighbourhood grocery shops, along with plenty of men too. Besides, a good many bookshops dedicated to paperbacks were opened in the 1950s, especially in colleges and small towns. Bookshops in America were earlier limited to a handful of large cities. This gave birth to a whole new relationship between books and their readers by changing the experience of purchasing them. To Times Literary Supplement, signposted stacks of books which the buyers themselves could access and which they could freely carry to the billing desk at the front was a matter of some wonder in 1957. By then Mentor books were selling in heavy traffic areas, such as bus, rail, or air terminals. George Kennan’s American Diplomacy reportedly sold ‘extremely well’ on newsstands. Crane Brinton, a Harvard historian, was mildly shocked to find his work in newsstands, but ‘it was a pleasant feeling’ too. These were new readers altogether, not ones who now switched from reading fiction to nonfiction. This audience fuelled the purchase of books in America by 250 per cent between 1947 and 1967.
In Britain, the story was different. The average Briton was academically less qualified than the average American, but he usually read more and had access to neighbourhood bookshops. A survey in 1947 found that two-thirds of all adults read books, and a third of all adults bought paperbacks. Mandler shows that probably half of them bought Penguins. But while paperbacks sales in America grew consistently higher, in Britain the growth for a time after the war was less striking than its prewar counterpart. It was partly a consequence of Lane’s refusal to aggressively market the books, although sales picked up again during and after the 1960s. But the shift of readership from fiction to nonfiction was experienced in Britain too.
Pelican and Mentor prized the choice of books by the reader as an education in itself. They made sure that their books were prominently displayed in the bookshops, and the new book supermarkets made that eminently possible. That is also why they offered titles across a very large range: sciences, social sciences, art, philosophy, religion, classics, and archaeology.
The expert bestsellers now included classics, literature, and history, but these categories too were changing rapidly. The Making of the English Working Class, believe it or not, was a Pelican bestseller in 1968. Between them, history and psychology accounted for nearly half of the Pelican bestsellers, with literature and sociology bringing up the rear. Intriguingly enough, science books did not do quite as well, nor economics nor politics. In America, on the other hand, history and literature did not do quite as well. Sociology and anthropology worked relatively better, with Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead selling quite briskly. Psychology, when not addressing questions of sex, did not fare too well either. But American readers displayed an insatiable appetite for comparative religion and philosophy. The English translation of the Koran, for instance, sold very well, as did the Geeta and The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha.
But what did the readers think about the books they read? In the past, paperback had been criticised for trivialising serious literature by making it more widely available. Did paperbacks ‘falsify history’, for instance, by reducing it to ‘the most ridiculous accumulation of facts and figures’? Did they represent merely a ‘culture vulture wish’? Ironically, the last quotation is taken from a Pelican bestseller called The Uses of Literacy, by Richard Hoggart. Mandler was confident that these books offered many readers important resources to cultivate and develop the idea of a better self: emotional and intellectual selves. Suzanne K Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key, for instance, offered an explicit programme for developing a sense of individual purpose. They facilitated a new type of self-fashioning in that they made available valuable resources which allowed a large number of new readers to think and act in utterly new ways. They were a means of a new round of gentrification or self-improvement. Sociology and psychology sold more, probably because it was also the time the readers were meeting new peoples and new cultures like never before, and they needed informed guides on how best to conduct themselves concerning these new and ‘different’ interlocutors. As C Wright Mills wrote in his bestselling The Sociological Imagination, people needed to locate ‘their personal troubles’ within a larger ‘social structure’. Mandler concludes that these twenty years or so of the rise of the paperback made possible the wide circulation of a distinct political and social sensibility. The post-war boom in Britain and America had ushered in a new wave of affluence, and educational opportunities were growing fast. They, in turn, spurred deeper existential queries among the masses, along with the widening of their horizon due to the Second World War. They practically woke up to a whole new world, all of a sudden, and they had to find their bearings within it. Fortunately, the cultural elite was ready, armed with anti-Fascist and democratic ethos, keen to circulate these values to the masses, as the undergirding rules of this new world. But the ideas promoted were no mere conformism, for those who would later stage the late 1960s rebellions all over the world too were keen paperback readers. Finally, the very fact that some books sold more than others marks a vibrant feedback loop between the readers and the publishers. If the publishers were surprised by the surge in sales of some books, such as the Koran, for instance, they did not stop publishing it. Thus there emerged a free market relation between new readers and their publishers, although it may not, in reality, have been entirely free or completely driven by popular choices.
But what it did accomplish is a new and definite respect for the specialist as a worthy and credible commentator on public affairs. It encouraged marked respect for the professional expert as a popular educator. It gave birth, in fact, to the now common popular expectation that a reasonably educated reader may be able to access the essentials of a public concern once it is intelligibly written up by a credible expert. This impulse of the society, or at least of the relatively educated among them, that experts must write about serious public concerns, probably also reduced to some extent the propensity of extremist pamphleteers or polemicists to rouse the rabble, as it were, with misleading conspiracy theories or other means of fear-mongering. It might have also given birth to the writer of popular non-fiction, that gentle and responsible mediator between ivory tower Dons and their commoner admirers.
I was reminded of some of these issues last week when there was a surge in support for historian Romila Thapar among the ordinary educated Indian. Prof. Thapar had been asked to submit her CV by Jawaharlal Nehru University, where she has been an Emeritus Professor for many years. Her popular supporters interpreted it as a deliberate attempt to humiliate the titanic historian. This is not the place to judge the ethical or legal veracity of the decision by the university. Suffice it to say that the move was certainly questionable. But how did so many educated Indians know about Professor Thapar, who has rarely participated in active public life beyond her teaching and research? There are only two possible answers. She published a paperback bestseller on ancient India in the early 1960s, which, remarkably enough, has since remained in print, and was later revised and expanded. Second, she has written a textbook for standard 10 students who went to schools which follow the curriculum designed by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). That textbook had been in circulation for nearly 40 years. I am pretty certain a majority of Prof. Thapar’s admirers have not heard of her (25 plus) other books or hundreds of papers or tens of major national or international honours. This is an instance of how paperbacks change readers or elevate their selves.